Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ornamental Fireboards and Firescreens*

With all the modern-day conveniences of today's more decorative varieties of fireplaces (including wood-burning, gas, gel alcohol, pellet, electric, etc.), it's easy to forget that our ancestors actually put fireplaces to work, using them to heat and light their homes and cook their food. Before the 18th century, as a matter of fact, fireplaces were huge compared to today's standards. At that time, homes typically comprised only one room for all household activity (including meal preparation), with the fireplace the central part of the room and daily life.
By the 18th century, however, colonial houses were becoming more spacious, having multiple rooms with different designated functions. Kitchens were moved to separate buildings and there was a greater understanding of fuel efficiency in fireplace design. One result of this evolution in design was the development of smaller fireplaces with more decorative appearance (including decorative fireplace tools and accessories).
However, as fireplaces still constituted the sole source of heat for the household, firescreens and fireboards were used in historic times not just as decorative items but also to prevent hot embers from flying out from the hearth and burning down the house. They also literally shielded fireside dwellers from the intense heat.

Today, the fireboard is far removed from its utilitarian origins. However, today's fireboards can still serve the very important function of looking beautiful while screening the charred depths of the unlit fireplace from view. While it can be difficult to find the exact fireboard you want, given the variables of size, shape, design theme, taste and cost, that doesn't mean you can't be creative and make your own.

The following are some examples of both the freestanding and “attached” fireboards that I have designed. Both types will serve the purpose and look beautiful, but freestanding styles are probably more practical if you plan on displaying your fireboards year round and need to move them out of the way when the fireplace is in use. Attached styles, on the other hand, have a uniquely “built-in” look with the additional bonus of completely covering the firebox.

Dining Room Fireplace

The fireboard in the picture to the right was actually made from a wall plaque purchased from an online furniture and home décor site. The plaque was simply screwed to a wooden stand that was then stained with a cherry finish to match the finish of the surrounding furniture. The freestanding style (as well as the subject matter of the picture itself) suit this colonial-themed dining room perfectly while blocking the opening of the sealed-up firebox.

Living Room Fireplace

In this next example (left), I found this beautiful freestanding fireboard in a home decorating and furniture store. It was actually being sold as a fireboard and I knew it would be perfect in the homeowner's living room. Unfortunately, it was much too tall and would've blocked much of the beautiful mantle without serving the purpose of screening the unlit firebox. No problem. I merely removed some decorative fretwork from below the main display panel, cut down the support pole in the back, and reattached the panel to hang just above the beautiful tripod base. The result is a lovely focal point that makes f or a standalone piece of art in this traditional living room.

Master Bath Fireplace

The next two examples were made for the bathroom and bedroom fireplaces in a client's master suite. As such, I felt it important that their styles be similar but not identical. The picture to the right shows the master bath fireplace with the attached fireboard in place. As with the dining room fireboard above, this fireboard originated as a wall plaque (though this one I found on clearance at a discount home store).

The original plaque was what I'd call a “brown paper bag” color, but what appealed to me was its high-relief detail. Given its “good bones”, all that was needed was to attach the plaque to a larger sheet of plywood (in order to match the size of the fireplace opening), paint the entire piece a nice shade of green ("Georgian Green" from Benjamin Moore), and then highlight the onlays and trim in gold leaf. The board was then attached to the metal frame of the firebox underneath with several small magnets placed on the back of the board.

For the gold highlights, you can either use real gold leaf sheets (which can be quite messy and expensive) or do what I did and use liquid gold leaf from a craft store (very inexpensive and simple to use). It's also worth noting that I had originally intended to use a “burnt umber” wash to “antique” the entire fireboard as a final step, but ultimately decided against it. Sometimes you just need to go with your instincts and know when enough is enough.

I'll be honest and say that when I originally bought this plaque, I had no particular use in mind for it. I just knew it was pretty and had potential and was reasonably priced. I'd think of something to do with it. If you keep an open mind when you're out and are prepared to buy when the opportunity arises (however unexpected), you can come up with some really unusual and inspired ideas that no one else will have.

Master Bedroom Fireplace

Finally, the fireboard below is from the aforementioned master bedroom. In this case, the entire fireboard was made from scratch (but was as simple as can be). The main piece is made from plywood (with subtle raised panels added for depth). I then purchased the onlays from an online supplier of architectural moldings and attached them to the plywood according to the manufacturer's instructions. After painting the entire structure in a rich shade of chocolate brown, I highlighted the onlays with liquid gold leaf. As with the bathroom fireboard, this one was attached to the firebox frame with magnets.

These particular onlays come from a company called Decorator's Supply, but you can also find a beautiful selection of architectural moldings and wood carvings from Enkeboll Designs or White River Hardwoods. All three of these suppliers sell to the trade and to individual consumers. There are also many more online resources if you are willing to do your homework. Or, if money is a little tight, you can also find onlays at any home improvement store (just be aware that the less expensive onlays are made from pressed composite materials and don't have the high-relief detail of the more expensive products).

Additional Options

I've provided just a few examples of how you can create your own fireboard, but there are almost limitless other materials you can use for such a project, including:
  • a framed mirror
  • a large decorative tray
  • an old piece/section of iron gate if you like the design
  • a piece of wood or medium density fiberboard (“MDF”) upholstered in your favorite fabric, covered with wallpaper, or decoupaged
  • a framed poster
All will give you a custom, designer look.

So there you have it. It takes a little more thought an d ingenuity if you want to create something that's special and custom suited to your décor. But it's worth it in the end, because it will be uniquely yours.

*It is important to note that this blog refers to fireboards and screens that are strictly ornamental, which are not intended for and should not be considered as a substitution for the fireplace screens that are utilized today for safety purposes.
Copyright 2010 - All rights reserved - Pamela Yeaton

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